I revealed the beautiful cover for this book just a bit ago, and today I’m excited to say that I have the very first chapter of the book for y’all to read!
Most days, my house feels like a prison.
Today is one of them. Ever since my father’s sudden death over two years ago, my stepmother and her annoying daughters have done everything in their power to make my life a living hell.
Locked away, like a family heirloom stored inside an old trunk, I see how much hatred these women breed. My father would roll over in his grave if he knew how I live, all because Clarissa is even more selfish and spoiled than her daughters. With only a few more months until the end of the school year, this is my life until I can make my escape.
Anastasia flings open my bedroom door and waltzes inside with a sour look on her face. She scans the floor and what’s left of my belongings, before her eyes eventually land on me. I don’t miss her scowl as she appraises my floral comforter, the one thing I have left from my mother.
“Get your lazy ass out of bed, Ella.” She says my name with such disdain that her words slice through me, cutting deep. “Mother says you have chores to do.”
“That’s no different than any other day,” I spit back. “Who else would clean up after you?”
She snickers, throwing her hands onto her wide hips. “At least you’re good for something other than taking up space. We can’t have you lounging around here all day doing nothing. You have to earn your keep.”
I get up from the bed, irritated and still half asleep. “This is my house, Anastasia. Not yours.”
She points a long, bony finger at me and digs it into my arm. Her French tip hurts as she presses it into my skin. “Now, that is where you are wrong. This is my mother’s house now, which makes it mine. If it were up to me, you would be out on your ass, but Mom likes having a maid.”
I let out an exaggerated sigh. How much more of this can I take? I can’t afford to live on my own. Clarissa pays my tuition at Strickland University, the one luxury I have left, and I wouldn’t dare do a thing to jeopardize getting far away from this torture.
Unlike my stepsisters, who drive Mercedes, I ride three buses to get to school. It takes me hours to get there, but at least I get to leave this hellhole a few times a week in hopes of making something of myself. I’m counting down the days until I graduate. As of today, I have one hundred days left.
Natasha strolls into my room with a bucket in hand and a mop in the other, dressed in vintage Chanel, of course.
My mother had worn plenty of it before these cows had ransacked this house and took every piece of clothing and jewelry she had of value. The only thing spared from my stepmother’s fire sale was a gold heart charm necklace my father had given me on my thirteenth birthday. One side of the heart had belonged to him and the other to me.
I’ve kept it hidden under a loose floorboard under my bed. It’s the one place none of them would ever bother to look. They’re too lazy to get on their hands and knees. Instead, they make me do all the work. Every morning, I wake to one of them screaming from the bottom of the stairs, Get down here and make us breakfast, Ella or Clean the dishes, Ella or Get the stain out of my Prada bag, Ella.
They always have some request, leaving me little time to study, which is why I spend my afternoons tutoring students in the library. I get extra financial aid for helping out, but I mostly do it to give myself a reprieve from my jailers.
“Get to work, Ella,” Natasha says, shoving the bucket and mop into my chest. “If you want that dress for the party tonight, you have to earn it.”
It takes every ounce of strength I have to hide my smile. Just thinking about the masquerade party at the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity house sets fire to my skin. Shawn Finch will be there. He’s gorgeous, the starting tight end for the Strickland Senators, and has big, strong arms that I want to touch every time I see him in the library.
He’s always failing at least one class because he’s too busy hooking up with girls and partying. From what I’d heard, he just manages to pass with the help of our tutoring staff. I would have killed to be his tutor last semester. Instead, I was stuck with some jerk from the hockey team. I even offered to trade Mandy, but she was too busy batting her eyelashes at Finch to consider my offer to switch. She practically had their wedding planned out in her head, and he didn’t even pay attention to her.
Guys like Finch are untouchable. You have to be part of the sport’s elite on campus to get anywhere near them. That’s why I jumped at the chance to go to this party tonight. I’m friends with Tori Reynolds, girlfriend of Sebastian Prince and the captain of the football team. He’s a big deal at our school. Tori invited me before I left class yesterday. She’s normal, like me, and nothing like most of the elitist snobs at Strick U. I guess we bonded over our mutual dislike for snooty people, and now, we’re acquaintances—maybe even friends.
Because of Anastasia and Natasha are always sticking their nose into my business, I have no friends other than Tori, no prospect of a boyfriend, and absolutely no life. I’m the house bitch, the girl who scrubs the floor, washes clothes, and cooks meals. This is my life for a little while longer. At least I get to go to the party tonight.
“Don’t look so excited,” Natasha yells, as I walk past her to deal with my chores. “Just remember we will be at the party, too.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I say, keeping my eyes focused on the long hallway in front of me with one goal in mind.
“And don’t you dare think of speaking to us. You don’t know us, and we don’t know you. Got it? You will never be one of us, no matter how hard you try,” Anastasia says in a harsh tone.
I stop at the top of the staircase and spin around to face them. “I don’t want to be like you or your friends. I just want to go to the party.”
Natasha clicks her tongue. “Figures you would make friends with someone like Tori. She’s another one who is way out of her league.”
“You’re just jealous because you want Bash and can’t have him.”
Anastasia snorts. “I’ll have you know we’ve already had him.”
Staring at Anastasia and then Natasha, I’m confused until I realize what she means and want to vomit.
“Being a whore isn’t exactly something to brag about, Sis,” I say, laughing to myself, as I turn around to go downstairs.
“You will pay for that! Just wait and see, Ella.”
I have no doubt my loving stepsisters and their equally bitchy sorority sisters will make this night harder for me. At least I get to wear a mask and pretend I am someone else for the night. If it were any other frat party, I probably would skip it. I get enough weird stares pointed in my direction because of the hand-me-downs I have to wear to school, let alone the looks I would get if I were to attend a party in the same clothes.
Tonight, I get to wear one of my mother’s dresses, as long as I finish my chores and homework. That was the deal I had made with Clarissa. Both of which were a given. I already have a perfect grade point average and cater to their every need.
One night. That’s all I want. One night to feel normal again. Maybe I’ll even get the kiss I think about when I see Shawn Finch on campus. Maybe, just maybe, I will get my wish.
* * *
As promised, Clarissa hands over one of my mother’s gowns. It’s floor length, made of white satin with a light pink chiffon overlay, and hugs my curves perfectly. I remember my mother wearing this dress to parties when I was younger. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be just like her. She reminded me of a princess the way she would spin around in her dresses and dance in the living room with my father.
My mother was so full of life until she’d gotten sick. Like me, she had long, blonde hair that curls at the ends and denim eyes. It wasn’t long after my mother’s passing that Dad met Clarissa. She was everything he needed her to be—until she wasn’t. I swear he died from a broken heart. Either that or my Bitch Mother poisoned him.
Staring in the mirror, I smile and think of my parents. I can almost see them here, standing at my sides, as they see me off. If my mother were here, she would have done my hair and makeup. Instead, I had to watch a few YouTube videos to learn how to create a smoky effect that makes my eyes pop, even with the mask on my face. With my hair already curled naturally, it didn’t take much to give my hair some extra volume.
For once, I feel pretty and worthy of a man like Shawn Finch. I only have to get him to notice me. This dress should do the trick. Or so I hope.
I take my time in these heels, careful not to fall down the stairs face first, keeping my fingers crossed that I will see Finch at the party. My jaw hurts from smiling so much, but one evil stare from Clarissa is enough to wipe it from my face.
Anastasia and Natasha stand at her sides decked out in black couture gowns they either stole from my mother or used my inheritance to buy.
“You have a curfew,” Clarissa says, folding her arms across her chest, giving me her best bitch face. “I want you in this house by midnight and not a second later. Do you understand?”
I hold my tongue and nod.
“Answer me, child,” she says, with anger in her voice.
She has hated me since the day she set foot inside this house. I was an inconvenience to her, another person in the way of my father’s money. He owned an investment firm before Clarissa sold his shares to some of the board members. Now, I have nothing. No parents. No money. And no way out of here.
“I will be home before curfew. I promise.”
She flashes a closed mouth smile and walks away without another word. Natasha steps toward me, followed by Anastasia, each of them now at my sides, making me uncomfortable.
Natasha tugs at the spaghetti strap on my right shoulder, while Anastasia clutches the other. Before I can stop them, I hear the sound of the fabric tear. The straps fall forward and hang loose, almost bringing tears to my eyes that I force back.
“What is wrong with you?” I shout so loud my voice echoes off the vaulted ceiling in the living room.
“Oops!” Natasha covers her mouth with her hand, her brown eyes wide in mock surprise.
“Our mistake,” Anastasia says, this time pulling at the pink overlay. One side rips and then the other, as Natasha helps her ruin my dress.
I’m defenseless against them. If I act out, my stepmother will punish me. She will lock me in my room and throw away the key, same as she does during winter and summer breaks from school. That’s why I have excelled so much in my studies. I spend countless hours a day with no TV, cell phone, or the Internet. Books are my only source of entertainment. So, I read a lot and take extra classes when I can afford to layer on the heavier course load.
As much as I want to cry, I have to stay strong and deal with whatever comes next.
“You think you’re so fucking smart, don’t you, Ella?” Natasha flicks her dark hair over her shoulder and grins like the Cheshire cat. “You think you can call us names and get away with it. Well, you are not getting anywhere near that party if we have anything to do with it. We don’t need you embarrassing us in front of our friends.”
Anastasia steps on the hem of my dress, holding me in place. I turn to walk away from them, but my plan backfires, the bottom of the dress tearing apart from Anastasia’s stiletto.
Staring down at the dress, I cover my mouth to stifle my sobs. But no tears follow. I never let them see me cry. I never have, and I never will. They don’t deserve my tears. It would only give them more power over me. Unlike their mother, mine was sweet and kind to everyone. She raised me to show people the same kindness, which is why I normally remain quiet around my stepsisters.
Lately, they have made it harder to control my anger toward them. Graduation is so close. Only one hundred more days before I can start living again.
“Looks like you can’t go to the party,” Natasha says, twirling a dark curl around her index finger with a satisfied smile.
“You can’t stop me from going,” I shoot back.
“Oh, we can and we will, Little Orphan Ella.” Natasha eyes me up and down, giving me her usual look of disapproval. “We have the Delta Sig guys wrapped around our fingers. They will do just about anything Kappa girls tell them. And, if that means keeping the help out of a party, then you can bet your ass they will listen.”
“You’re such a bitch, Natasha.” I pivot my body between them. “You, too, Anastasia. I have never done a thing to either of you to deserve this.”
My stepmother would slap me across the face if I ever spoke to her the way I do the girls.
“You exist. That’s enough for us,” Anastasia says, rolling her eyes at me.
We have a quick stare down before Anastasia turns on her heel and strolls toward the front door, beckoning Natasha to follow. For pretty girls, they have such foul attitudes that make them far less attractive. How they even manage to get the guys at our school to talk to them amazes me. But I guess money goes a lot farther than I think.
I had money. Well, my father had money. Now, I have nothing. Even so, I will never belong in the inner circles at the prestigious Strickland University. A former rich girl is not enough to become one of them.
The second the door slams behind my stepsisters, shaking the house in its wake, the first tear slides down my cheek. I wipe away a streak of wet mascara from my face. Even with the girls gone, I cannot risk Clarissa seeing me cry. She would point and laugh, all while enjoying every second of my humiliation.
I run out the front door, as fast as my feet will allow, through the garden on the right side of the mansion, the tears falling faster with each step toward the gazebo out back.
Once I reach the wooden structure, I stop to catch my breath and grab hold of the rail, as I step up and onto the platform. My father was good with his hands, despite being such a brainiac. He had built this for my mother for their wedding. I come here whenever I need a break from life. It reminds me that I once had a normal life, full of love and warmth. Not all people are as cruel and hurtful as my stepfamily.
I shake my head when I take in the sight of what Natasha and Anastasia have done. They trashed my dress. Pieces of fabric hang down at different places, the material tattered and frayed. After years of envisioning what it would be like to go to a party dressed as a princess, this is not even close to what I had imagined. There’s no way I can go to the party looking like I found this in a dumpster.
Sitting on the bench, I clutch my stomach from the pain that comes with each scream that escapes my throat. I’m never this emotional. I never let them get to me. But this night was important to me. It was my one shot at talking to the guy I have liked for as long as I can remember. All I want is one kiss from the man of my dreams. That’s enough to satisfy my craving for Shawn Finch. The mask would serve as my shield, my only way to protect my identity.
“What’s all the crying about?” I hear a woman say, scaring the life out of me. “Pretty girls like you shouldn’t be all alone and screaming to the high heavens.”
No one ever comes back here. My body goes into overdrive thinking about all the possibilities until I look over my shoulder and see an older woman. She’s in her sixties or seventies. It’s hard to tell with the dim light that washes over the dark property.
Wiping the water works from my cheeks with the back of my hands, I peek over at her. She steps up and into the gazebo, uninvited.
“Who are you?” I choke out, not the least bit frightened by a woman her age. She seems pleasant enough, even if she’s trespassing on private property.
“Your new next-door neighbor. I moved in last week.” There’s a Southern twang to her soft voice that reminds me of my father. My dad’s side of the family is from the Southern parts of the United States, and she sounds just like them, which puts me even more at ease with her.
“How did you get back here?”
She shrugs, unaffected, and leans her back against the wood. “I walked from my house. I’ve done it every night since I moved in. You have a lot more land on this side of the fence and a lot more to look at.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I say, sucking down the tears. “The garden is pretty barren now that my mother is gone and the landscapers are no longer around to keep up with the maintenance.”
Why would Clarissa hire someone when she has me to trim the rose bushes or mow the lawn? I am the maid, gardener, chef, and butler. If they can dream it, I can do it.
“Someone is keeping up with it,” she says, pointing out the obvious.
“Tending to the yard is one of my chores,” I admit.
She shakes her head in disapproval. Thankfully, she doesn’t go any further. I hate telling strangers about my situation, so I usually avoid conversations altogether. It’s also the reason I have no friends. How could I ever tell anyone about what goes on around here? It’s too humiliating to say aloud.
“What is your name, girl?” Her voice is soft, inviting.
“Ella,” I choke out, “Ella Fitzgerald. What’s yours?”
“Katherine Feighry, but everyone calls me Mrs. F. You never told me why you were out here crying.”
She reaches out to touch my arm, and for some reason, I let her. It’s nice to have someone comfort me. I sure as hell don’t get that at home and can use all the love and affection I can get—even if it’s from a stranger.
“There’s this guy…Well, I was supposed to go to this party, but my stepsisters ripped apart my dress. I was looking forward to going.”
“Then, go,” she says without hesitation. “Nothing is stopping you. Don’t let those girls get in the way of your plans.”
I frown at her words. “Easier said than done. I have nothing to wear, and there’s no way I will get in with what I have on.”
The woman releases her grip on me and stands, holding out her hand to me. “Come, darling, let me fix you up.”
I glance up at her, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“I have a dress for you to wear. You will love it.”
I narrow my eyes at her. “You do?”
She nods. “Yes, and it’s perfect for you.”
I set my hand in hers, nervous about where she’s about to take me. But I am desperate and in need of her random act of kindness. Maybe I will even make it to the masquerade party. Maybe I will get my kiss from Finch.
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